Mark Richardson: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The idea that the "inner" materials of the artist are "re-formed" by the "outer" materials in which he works helps us understand the implications of the reading of "Stop- ping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" given by Frost himself in "The Constant Symbol." Much commentary on "Stopping by Woods" has suggested that the poem expresses a complicated desire for self-annihilation. The idea is well handled by Richard Poirier in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing: "The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, an impulse no more predominate in Frost than in nature" (181). Frank Lentricchia makes a similar point about Frost's winter landscapes in general and quotes an especially apposite passage from Gas- ton Bachelard's The Poetics of Space: "In the outside world, snow covers all tracks, blurs the road, muffles every sound, conceals all colors. As a result of this universal whiteness, we feel a form of cosmic negation in action" (qtd. in Lentricchia, Landscapes 31).

During Frost's own lifetime, however, the matter was often handled much less sensitively. Indeed, critics sometimes set his teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide or marked some especially dark passage in the poet's life. Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation (and similar remarks may be found in transcripts of a number of Frost's public readings):

I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [in 19S8]…Now Ciardi is a nice fellow—one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and say all sorts of things. He makes my "Stopping By Woods" out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I'd say, "This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven." There'd be no absurdity in that. That's all right, but it's hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, "This is all very well, but I must be getting on to Phoenix, Arizona, to lecture there." [Mertins 371]

As does Eliot, Frost often couples suggestions 0f private sorrows and griefs with statements about their irrelevance. William Pritchard describes the practice well in pointing out how Frost typically "[holds] back any particular reference to his private sorrows while bidding us to respond to the voice of a man who has been acquainted with grief" (230). It is worth bearing in mind that, later in the conversation with Mertins, Frost says: "If you feel it, let's just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that're never said, and if you—if they're brought out, right out, too baldly, something's lost" (371-72). To similar effect, he writes in a letter to Sidney Cox: "Poetry...is a measured amount of all we could say an we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling for when to stop short. The right people know, and we artists should know better than they know" (CPPP 714). I think of Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things" (Selected Essays 10-11). He has in mind exactly the sort of readers and writers Frost acknowledges here: "The right people know, and we artists should know better than they know." In any event, Frost’s subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi's suggestion about "Stopping by Woods" and to lay a polite injunction against it.

But his turning aside of Ciardi's reading is more than an example of tact. He speaks out of fidelity to his belief that the emotions that give rise to a poem are in some way alienated by it in the result, and his alternative reading of "Stopping by Woods" is worth dwelling on as a roundabout contribution to the theory of personality and motive in poetry. Frost directs our attention not to the poem's theme or content but to its form: the interlocking pattern of rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: "If I were reading it for someone else, I'd begin to wonder what he's up to. See. Not what he means but what he's up to" (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. Following are Frost's brief comments on it in "The Constant Symbol":

There's an indulgent smile I get for the recklessness of the unnecessary commitment I made when I came to the first line in the second stanza of a poem in this book called "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening." I was riding too high to care what trouble I incurred. And it was all right so long as I didn't suffer deflection. (CPPP 788)

In emphasizing the lyric's form Frost really only defers the question of theme or content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader's consideration; the form simply is the theme. If this seems surprising, it is only because Frost's emphasis makes for so complete a reversal in mood. The mood of the poem at this second level of form-as-theme is anything but suggestive of self-annihilation: "I was riding too high to care what trouble I incurred." This is the kind of transformation Poirier has in mind when he remarks in The Performing Self (1971), quoting an interview with Frost originally published in the Paris Review in 1960: "If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses—as an act, as a composition, a performance, a 'making,'—the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses 'what a hell of a good time I had writing it'" (892). I would point out further that Frost's reading, appearing as it does in "The Constant Symbol," lends the last two lines of "Stopping by Woods" added resonance: "promises" are still the concern, though in "The Constant Symbol" he speaks of them as "commitments" to poetic form. Viewed in these terms "Stopping by Woods" dramatizes the artist's negotiation of the responsibilities of his craft. What may seem to most readers hardly a metapoetical lyric actually speaks to the central concern of the poet as a poet when the form of the poem is taken as its theme.

The question immediately presents itself, however, of a possible disjunction between form and theme, even as they seem to work in tandem. The "unnecessary commitment" that exhilarated Frost-the rhyme scheme—does in fact "suffer deflection" in the last stanza: here there are four matched end rhymes, not three. Promises are broken, not kept, as Frost relinquishes the pattern he carried through the first three stanzas. Of course, as John Ciardi points out in the Saturday Review article alluded to above, this relinquishment is really built into the design itself: the only way not to break the pattern would have been to rhyme the penultimate line 0f the poem with the first, thereby creating a symmetrical, circular rhyme scheme. Frost chose not to keep this particular promise, with the result that the progress of the poem illustrates one form of the lassitude that it apparently resigns itself to being a stay against-to put the matter somewhat paradoxically. Paradox is only fitting, however, in acknowledging the mixture of motives animating the poem: motives, on the one hand, of self-relinquishment in what Poirier calls Frost's "recognition of the power of nature...to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being"; and motives, on the other hand, of self-assertion and exhilaration in what Frost calls the experience of "riding ...high." Frost's remark about Robinson's poetry in the introduction to King Jasper seems to apply rather well to "Stopping by Woods": "So sad and at the same time so happy in achievement" (CPPP 747].

A slighter example of dark emotion redeemed by poetic form and thereby brought to happy achievement is Frost's little poem "Beyond Words":

That row of icicles along the gutter Feels like my armory of hate; And you, you ...you, you utter… You wait!

If the hatred truly were "beyond words" it could not have found expression, let alone expression in a poem. Here, form has "disciplined" the hatred to which the lines allude into the obviously very different mood and feeling that we get from reading the poem itself. The playful rhyme of "gutter" to "utter" has the peculiar subsidiary grace of suggesting the guttural tone in which the poem thinks of itself as being uttered. In his "'Letter' to The Amherst Student" Frost says that, so long as we have form to go on, we are "lost to the larger excruciations" (CPPP 740). "Beyond Words" helps us see what he means. Resources of rhythm and rhyme transform darker, chaotic emotions into the lighter, altogether more manageable one of what Frost liked to call "play." In "Beyond Words" this "play" is also felt in the tension between the iambic rhythms that underlie the lines and the more agitated rhythms of the spoken phrases. The only true "materialist," Frost explains in "Education by Poetry," is the person who gets "lost in his material" without a guiding metaphor to throw it into shape (CPPP 724). Here, a metaphor comparing icicles along a gutter to an "armory of hate," together with the sonic equation of "gutter" to "utter," essentially tame a troubling experience. "Beyond Words" offers an example of how hatred can find a profitable, even redemptive outlet—just as an urge toward self-relinquishment may find its outlet in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

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Another implication of Frost's reading of "Stopping by Woods" is that any distinction between form and theme must remain provisional. Relative to readings of "Stopping by Woods" as a poem concerned with possibilities of self-annihilation, Frost’s own reading seems rather too exclusively fixed upon form and doubtless has struck many readers as evasive. But in the context of the essay in which his reading of the poem appears, "The Constant Symbol," that reading is quite thematic in its concerns, not at all formalistic—as should presently become clear. And in the larger work comprising both the poem and his commentary on it, Frost is in fact interested in destabilizing the oppositions of theme to form and of content to form.

Three terms concern us: content, theme, form. In approaching some poems it is necessary first to describe the content. Reading Wallace Stevens's poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream," for example, we may say that it describes a funeral—a statement about content. (By contrast, nothing could be plainer than the content of most of Frost's lyrics, especially "Stopping by Woods.") In any event a critic needs some intelligible ground against which to work in speaking of the theme, or if you prefer, the "concern" of the poem—what it aims to draw our attention to as readers of poetry. What the poem "has in mind" is not to be confused with what it "has in view," though the two categories often overlap. "The Emperor of Ice Cream" may or may not have a funereal theme; "Stopping by Woods" mayor may not be "thinking" of a man in a sleigh. Form is still another matter, and to address it a critic usually has to define and stabilize for purposes of investigation some notion of theme to work against. Which yields these three (somewhat unstable) concepts: what a poem describes—its content; what it has in mind—its theme; and how it holds together—its form.

Whatever a critic's terminology, it is perhaps inevitable that she rely on each of these concepts. I am suggesting that Frost's critical theory and practice show how they are exchangeable: each term must be considered for its place in a kind of escalation of significance in which theme, form, and content change places. This is, it seems to me, the meaning of Frost's definition in "The Constant Symbol": "Every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements" (CPPP 787). Here is a theme which is not one: that is to say, a theme which stands in no comfortable opposition either to content or form. "Figure" works in three senses here: in the sense of metaphor; in the sense of "subject" or "theme," as when we say that a painting is of a human figure; and in the sense of "pattern" or form. The "figure" or pattern a poem makes may "pose" and become either the content or the theme of a particular poem; that is, a poem may either have that pattern "in view" or "in mind." In Frost's reading of "Stopping by Woods," for example, the figure that poem makes, its rhyme and stanza scheme, becomes its "figure" or theme. But it is not enough to say that a poem is a "figure"—whether we mean metaphor or theme—of the will braving alien entanglements: it is also an example of it, not merely a representation, and this directs our attention to the act of description in a poem rather than to the things it describes. More precisely, it extends the category of "things described" (the content) to include also the act of description. Considered in this light the content of every poem "written regular" (as Frost says) is this "figure of the will braving alien entanglements." His reading plainly undermines the distinction between form and content: the container becomes the thing contained—which brings us to the very heart of the matter. This exchange and merger of container and contained—of outside and inside, form and content—is central to Frost's understanding of motive. When he writes to Lesley Frost: "I want to be good, but that is not enough the state says I have got to be good," the observation quite naturally occurs to him in connection with a discussion of form in poetry. This suggests the broader implications of the fact that outer motivations become indistinguishable from the inner motivations of the agent—whether he is a poet writing a poem or a citizen simply endeavoring to be good. It is as impossible to define the essential motive of "Stopping by Woods"—intrinsic? extrinsic? personal? formal?—as it would be to define the essential motive of the desire to be virtuous. In both cases the motive is the product, not the antecedent, of engagements with alien entanglements—that is, with the coercive motives, however benign, of form and state.

Since this points to the indissociability of external and internal motivations it naturally bears closely on the question of personality in poetry. To say that a poet "expresses" himself is to assign priority to intrinsic motives as against extrinsic ones and to elevate autobiographical impulses above the act of composition. Furthermore, in putting content above form, expressive theories of poetry necessarily assume a stable opposition of message to vehicle, in which the former remains uncontaminated by the latter. Thinking of poetry in terms of expression inevitably engages the battery of assumptions Derrida skeptically describes in "Signature Event Context": "If men write it is: (1) because they have to communicate; (2) because what they have to communicate is their 'thought,' their 'ideas,' their representations. Thought, as representation, precedes and governs communication, which transports the 'idea,' the signified content." In Frost's Derridean-Burkean grammar the sentence must always read: a poem is expressed, which captures the mixture of external and internal motives he finds in himself and in writing. No pure governing intention precedes a poem to be embodied in it. We must speak instead of a "succession" of intention. 

From The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Copyright © 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

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Criticism Overview
Title Mark Richardson: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mark Richardson Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics
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